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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th November 1997.

The House met at a quarter past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

John Steven Bassam, Esquire, having been created Baron Bassam of Brighton, of Brighton in the County of East Sussex, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Healey and the Baroness Gould of Potternewton.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

Emma Harriet Nicholson, wife of Sir Michael Harris Caine, Knight, having been created Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, of Winterbourne in the Royal County of Berkshire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Harris of Greenwich and the Lord Holme of Cheltenham.

Lord Monro of Langholm

The Right Honourable Sir Hector Seymour Peter Monro, Knight, AE, having been created Baron Monro of Langholm, of Westerkirk in Dumfries and Galloway, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Strathclyde and the Lord Sanderson of Bowden.

EU Accession: Minority Protection

2.49 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to ensure that countries seeking accession to the European Union protect minorities, including the Roma minority, from discrimination and racially motivated assaults.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are significant problems concerning minority nationalities in a number of eastern and central European countries. There are Roma communities in several of them. Protecting minorities from discrimination is one of the qualifying criteria for EU accession. The British Government support strongly all efforts to address shortcomings in the treatment of minorities in all the applicant countries. We endorse the EC's proposals for accession partnerships with which any problems in those areas can be resolved (as they must be) before accession to the EU. In the meantime our own Know-How Fund is also working hard to promote the protection of minorities throughout central Europe.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is he aware that the

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most recent reports indicate a sharp rise in racial attacks in the Czech Republic last year--some three times the number of racial attacks in the previous year? Is he aware also that under the Copenhagen Summit the protection of minorities is a condition of membership of the EU? Will he therefore assure the House that the British Government will make strong representations to the Czech Republic to take vigorous action to protect its Roma minority and, among other things, to prevent the outward movement of many Roma into countries that they regard as less likely to persecute them?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that the protection of minorities and civil rights in general is one of the Copenhagen criteria, and therefore has been relevant to the Commission's opinion on the applications of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other eastern European countries. There has been considerable evidence--some of it in our own media--of the level of racism against the Roma minorities in those countries. Some of it is public antagonism to the minority rather than institutionalised state racism. Nevertheless, there is clearly an obligation on those states to protect their minorities more effectively than they have done. Some degree of low level police harassment is evident in those countries.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister aware of this judgment on the Roma by President Meciar in 1993:

    "It is necessary to curtail the extended reproduction of [this] socially unadaptable and mentally backward population"?

Can the Minister imagine the effect of joining that attitude to a racial minority with freedom of movement within the EU? Does he agree that the effect of human rights abuses on movement of population is one reason why this Government's commitment to an ethical foreign policy is in our national interest?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree completely with the final point made by the noble Earl. I am not familiar with the quotation to which he referred, but it reflects some of the attitudes of people within Slovakia and other eastern European countries towards their minorities. Such an attitude needs clearly to be eliminated from government and establishment thinking, and judicial and police operations, within those countries before we can conceivably allow them to enter the EU.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I should declare an interest as a member of the board of the European Roma Rights Centre, whose headquarters are in Budapest. In view of the Minister's recognition that the Roma are a large ethnic group facing severe problems of racial discrimination, prejudice and harassment, will he ensure that accurate information is made available by the Home Office in asylum applications so that the special immigration adjudicators can have recent cogent evidence of the actual situation in the country from which the Roma are seeking asylum in this country?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I hesitate to stray too far into the area of the Home Office. Clearly the asylum

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applications of those Roma who have arrived in Dover and other places in this country will be dealt with in the normal way, on the basis of as much information as the Home Office and immigration officials can acquire.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell: My Lords, will the Minister indicate what monitoring there will be of the situation in those countries, and, in particular, the Czech and Slovak Republics, to ensure that there is a definite improvement in the protection of minority rights, and, especially, of the Roma people?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in the approach to EU accession, the situation with regard to minorities and their civic rights will be a central part of the monitoring process to see whether they can meet the EU criteria. The criteria on civil rights and the protection of minorities are absolute criteria. There will be no transitional period. So accession to the EU would require them already to have vastly improved their treatment of minorities before we could conclude an accession treaty.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Council of Europe has set up a monitoring committee to monitor those countries within the Council of Europe which have these problems?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, under the reinforced pre-accession strategy, there is an institutional form of monitoring those aspects set up by the Commission. That will form part of the report to the Council of Ministers at the various stages of the accession talks.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister once again for his helpful reply. Is he aware that, under the present Home Office procedures, most of the Roma who are currently trying to enter the country at Dover and other southern ports are subject to a fast track procedure of five working days? Under that procedure, most are returned almost immediately. Will he be kind enough to draw the attention of his colleagues in the Home Office to a situation where the genuine grounds of persecution sometimes do not have time to be considered seriously?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office are aware of those concerns. However, when we are faced with an arrival of substantial proportions, the facts have clearly to be established rapidly. That is what the Home Office has attempted to do.

Phone Boxes: Unauthorised Display of Numbers

2.56 p.m.

The Earl of Bradford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to deal with unauthorised advertising in London phone boxes.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the unauthorised activity referred to in the Question mainly concerns

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prostitutes' advertising cards. The Government are concerned about that problem because the increasingly explicit cards deter people from using public call boxes. I can assure noble Lords that appropriate measures are in hand. BT is taking unilateral action to bar incoming calls to BT numbers advertised in BT call boxes. BT and the City of Westminster are taking steps to clean out phone boxes on a regular basis. The Government are also looking at options for using the criminal law to deal with the nuisance.

The Earl of Bradford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply and for making my Question a little clearer. I may have been over-delicate in the way that I phrased it. Does he consider that giving greater powers to Oftel to allow call barring to numbers other than BT numbers would be helpful in this situation? Alternatively, does he accept that the police should be given greater powers to prosecute and that fines should be much heavier than they are at the moment?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, BT sought the support of other telecom operators to bar the calls. However, the scheme was challenged by lawyers acting on behalf of the London Committee of Call Girls. The lawyers argued that the co-operation between BT and the other telecoms operators represented a registrable agreement under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act. However, BT has continued unilaterally with its own ban. Since February it has issued 733 warning letters and barred incoming calls to 104 lines. In addition, 94 customers ceased renting BT lines during the process.

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